Should Alhambra's immigrants be able to learn English for free?
It's early in the morning, but Mary Torregrossa’s English classroom at the El Monte-Rosemead Adult School is filled to capacity with eager students from Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere around the globe.
Many of the students are residents of Alhambra who attended the city's adult education program for free, before it was eliminated two years ago due to budget cuts. Now they are looking elsewhere again, since El-Monte-Rosemead is starting to charge out-of-district students for the first time.
Unlike countries like Canada, Germany, and Israel — which offer free language immersion and integration classes for recent immigrants — the United States does not guarantee English classes.
"We have this grand idea that you can make it on your own, nothing happens officially unless you’re a refugee," said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and specialist in immigration. "This is just part of the idea that you sign up for when you’re a new American."
But the consequences of cutting English classes, say students and educators, are that immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley have a harder time adapting, learning a language, and finding a job. Reina Chung, a former Alhambra Adult School student who took ESL and computer classes, believes adult school is a vital resource for Alhambra immigrants. Chung said it provides "a foundation to what U.S. society is about." When the Alhambra school was closed she started taking classes in El Monte-Rosemead, but has been challenged by the number of students and increase in prices. "Give them [immigrants] basics," she said. "I think every city should have basic ESL."
El Monte-Rosemead and Alhambra are part of a larger trend where local municipalities are cutting back on adult school programs throughout the state, and many are forced to charge fees to save the schools. Los Angeles Unified School District is offering approximately half the adult courses listed last year and increased cost of vocational courses by 30 percent. Baldwin Park Adult School is facing similar challenges. "We started charging fees a couple of years ago," Baldwin Park Adult School head counselor Barbara Kebre said, noting that classes continue to be popular. "Learning English is very important in our community. They're serious about it, proud of the fact that they are learning English. They want to take these classes so they can get better jobs."
Alhambra Unified School District did not feel that charging fees was enough to save the program, and cut it last year to prioritize K-12 education. “In crisis times difficult decisions have to be made about where to make budget cuts,” Superintendent Donna Perez wrote in an e-mail to Alhambra Source. “The Board of Education and administration are trying to keep budget cuts as far away from the K-12 classrooms as possible so that our students get the best education possible and student achievement rises.
Torregrossa, who formerly taught at Alhambra Adult School, said that poor Alhambra immigrants are among the students who will suffer the most when the price is increased. Out-of-district students must now pay $74 per nine sessions at El Monte-Rosemead for classes they used to be able to take for free. “It allows for El Monte residents to get priority entrance to classes by cutting down on the number of students from other closed-down adult schools,” said Torregrossa. “In my mind, it means poor people from other districts cannot attend for free and may be locked out of the opportunity.”
In Alhambra, about one quarter of households have no adults who speak English well, according to Census statistics. Xiao Juan Zhang, another former Alhambra Adult School student, said that this decrease in class offerings and the rise in fees will affect immigrants of all ages. While a large percentage of adult school students are older, ranging from those in their late twenties to those considered senior citizens, some high school students enroll as well. Zhang’s daughter, for example, attended an adult school in the area when she was unable to complete units at her local high school.
And Zhang adds, not only will new immigrants suffer, but also their children. “Some parents have young kids who need guidance in school. They need to know how to read, they need to help their children with homework," said Zhang. “We don’t want these programs cut anymore, these programs are incredibly important."